From jazz kid to Milo ambassador - it took Sing! China for Nathan Hartono to become a household name in Singapore
From jazz kid to Milo ambassador - it took Sing! China for Nathan Hartono to become a household name in Singapore

Must Singaporeans Go Foreign to Get Famous?

Homegrown Singaporean singer/artist/author/actor/filmmaker struggles to carve out a name for himself here, strikes out overseas, makes it big on the international stage, and finally gets the attention of Singaporeans.

Sounds familiar?

No surprise there, given how this has been the tried and tested formula for success for many of our local talents.

Take the Sing! China competition for instance.

Nathan Hartono has been performing in talent contests and charity concerts since he was 14, but it took appearing and coming in second on the China reality television show last year to propel him to bona fide stardom.

Suddenly, all of Singapore took notice, taking him from the boy who croons jazz standards to the man who appears on every other magazine and just about every Milo commercial.

This year, we have not one, but four hopefuls from Singapore following in Hartono’s footsteps.

Regardless of whether they emerge champion, one could argue that Joanna Dong, Curley Gao, Stella Seah and Olinda Cho are already winners.

For not only does their exposure in China bode well for their foray into the Chinese music market, they now also have the backing of Singaporeans who would otherwise not have known about or forgotten them.

Cho may have been a Singapore Idol alum, but 13 years since we saw her finish third on the show’s first season, she’s back on everybody’s lips.

Dong, too, is no stranger to showbiz here, but Sing! China has put her before a larger audience that did not necessarily listen to her jazz music or watch her in musicals.

Joanna Dong singing her heart out at Sing! China

This makes me wonder if Singaporeans somehow need some kind of foreign validation (be it talent shows, international accolades or a foreign fanbase) before their fellow countrymen take them seriously.

Some of our most successful singers carved a name for themselves overseas - think Stefanie Sun, JJ Lin and Tanya Chua - before coming home to adoring fans and numerous National Day songs.

Unlike New York, where the mantra is “if I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere”, Singapore’s slogan for success seems to be “if I can make it somewhere else, I’ll make it here”.

This phenomenon is far from unique to singers. However established in their respective fields, many other creatives have international recognition to thank for earning a wider following at home.

Filmmaker Anthony Chen shot to fame in 2013 after Ilo Ilo snagged the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and clinched a slew of Golden Horses.

Boo Junfeng and Kirsten Tan also rose to prominence after their films Apprentice and Pop Aye won prizes at international film festivals.

A scene from Anthony Chen's Cannes-winning film, Ilo Ilo

Singapore authors who score bestsellers here are often published overseas. Cheryl Tan Lu-Lien’s Sarong Party Girls, for instance, spent 28 weeks atop the Straits Times bestseller list for adult fiction. Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians claimed the same spot earlier for 26 weeks.

Meanwhile, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s locally published novels, Inheritance and Sugarbread, have yet to gain the bestseller profile of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was published by HarperCollins in the UK.

So why does this happen?

Are we as a nation just extremely judgy and not supportive of our local talent? I have definitely been guilty of that.

I remember watching shows like Singapore Idol as a teenager and lamenting that standards were, in my opinion, not as high as American Idol or Rock Star Supernova.

Perhaps it was the smaller talent pool, but even for our crowned winners, have we stood behind them after the pomp and circumstance of live television and competitive voting dies down?

I have nothing but admiration for Taufik Batisah’s voice, so it disappointed me to see his CD going for $2 in a discount bin just a couple of years after his Singapore Idol victory.

Cheryl Tan Lu-Lien’s Sarong Party Girls spent 28 weeks atop the Straits Times bestseller list for adult fiction

Could we not be offering enough recognition back home?

Not necessarily true. We have coveted honours like the Cultural Medallion, Singapore Literature Prize and Life Theatre Awards, to name a few (though having more for different fields like music and visual arts certainly wouldn’t hurt).

Perhaps it’s a small country syndrome: The market here is comparatively tiny and growth is often stunted, hence the mentality that creatives have to hop abroad in order to succeed.

I guess there’s also something to be said about the pride that comes with putting our little red dot on the map - any “small fish in a big pond” success ultimately tastes sweeter than that of a “big fish in a small pond”.

My worry, however, is that some of us have, by extension, concluded that foreign validation is somehow more valuable and authoritative than domestic acceptance.

I’m sure many of us (myself included) have eagerly checked out a Singapore movie just because it was internationally-acclaimed.

Sometimes I’ve been disappointed, and I questioned why I preferred watching yesterday’s nondescript local television drama to this award-winning masterpiece.

Did I miss something that the Cannes and Sundance judges saw? Probably.

Should I still insist that the film is good because all the critics say so?

I don’t think so.

At the end of the day, this boils down to personal taste and standards, which we as consumers owe to ourselves to uphold.

Yes, foreign validation is always gratifying, but we can’t follow it blindly.

So, if you find that you love the work of an obscure Singapore singer/artist/author/actor/filmmaker, believe in your choice and share it. Who knows, one share can lead to another, and undiscovered talent today, however local, might end up as tomorrow’s sensation.

The same way no Michelin star can tell us which hawker stall is our favourite, we’d do well to trust our instincts and let our next superstar know that we’ve always been behind them from day one.